Time in Japanese art and society

Those of you who have been with me for a while will remember that I used to be very keen on establishing a link between traditional Chinese painting and Slow Cinema. Of course, this approach didn’t work for all slow films. But I remember that certain films by Lav Diaz (Melancholia, Encantos) worked well in the light of Chinese painting, in particular because of their representation of landscape, their use of a black-and-white aesthetic, their vertical storytelling, etc

While browsing aimlessly through shelves at my local book shop, I found an intriguing book on time in Japanese art and society, which, especially because of all its wonderful illustrations, caught my attention. Written by Nelly Delay, a long-time expert in Japanese art, Le jeu de l’éternel et de l’éternité is a look at how the concept and the perception of time in Japan has changed over time. Striking, right from the beginning, is the argument that there is no continuity of time in Japan. There is only a succession of instants and intervals.

I’m not planning on linking everything in this book to Slow Cinema. Yet, the paragraph of continuity / instant had me thinking. The instant is what we, in the West, commonly describe as a fast element. Shocks come through instants. Trauma can be the result of violent instants. This perception hits a dead end, though, when we consider the nature of concentrationary time, which I spoke about in more detail in my doctoral thesis. Continuity and the instant act side by side in order to create a particularly frightening atmosphere. This is how Lav Diaz approached the representation of time and trauma in Melancholia, Death in the Land of Encantos and Florentina Hubaldo, CTE, too. There is a constant push and pull between the instant and continuity.

Now, the Japanese don’t consider those two elements as separate. Nor do they consider past, present and future as separate elements. In the traditional belief, only the present really exists. Delay compares the Japanese approach to a suggestion by Augustine of Hippo, an early Christian theologian from what is now Algeria. He argued that there are three times: the present of past events, the present of present events and the present of future events. In our linear way of thinking time, this, of course, doesn’t make a lot of sense. For us, we move continually from the past to the future, and the present is only a minuscule element because the present is always already past. I believe that in our societies, the past, in particular, but also the future have been assigned a stronger meaning than the present. This is what makes it difficult for us to stay mindful, to stay in the moment, in the presence. What is immediately becomes what has been. In Japanese thought, what is remains what is.

Chronos – the Greek personification of time. If one studies time – the philosophy of it, the history, its effects on society etc – one cannot, in our societies at least, avoid a study of Chronos. On top of that, we use words that are derived from Chronos in our daily lives: chronology, chronomètre (in French). Chronos is in and around us. Not so in Japan. Delay writes that ancient Japan had no (shintoist) deity which symbolised time. If we go back to what I said earlier about the uses of time in a concentrationary system, then it is of interest to take a look at the Japanese word for time: toki. According to Delay, toki means more the instant than an abstract continuity. Time can be modified according to natural and social events, it is said. I would add that time can also be modified and manipulated according to one’s needs, as one can gather from studies into the concentrationary (and Foucault’s writings on the prison).

(NB: I have literally no idea where I’m going with this, so please bare with me while I’m jotting down thoughts!)

This eternal present the Japanese believe in has its effect on the arts. Can we escape time? In the arts, we can, as I proposed in an earlier post. The Japanese used to do this quite impressively by not representing ageing. Characters in their paintings and their prints never showed wrinkles or any other form of ageing. An eternal present always also meant an escape of time in the arts. Another characteristic, according to Delay: the lack of shadows. There are a few exceptions to this, but objects and people didn’t have shadows in traditional paintings. Shadows are always a marker of time. Depending on where the sun stood, the shadow changed, which also meant – as we are well aware of today – one could gather roughly what time of day it was (morning, afternoon, evening etc).

It is fascinating to see the, at first sight, contradictory nature of Japanese time. There is, on the one hand, an eternal present. On the other hand, everything is ephemeral. Nothing remains. There is a progression of time, but it shouldn’t be shown explicitly in the arts. What mattered most, Delay writes, was the creation of an atmosphere, of impressions. In this way, Japanese art was always aimed at creating an active viewer, who “completes” in his mind the reality he has in front of his/her eyes. And here we can build a bridge between the Japanese approach to time in art and Slow Cinema. The extensive use of the off-screen space as well as the rejection of explanations of key narrative elements demands of the viewer to become active and to finish the film in his/her mind. Wasn’t it Tarkovsky who said that a film was never finished at the end of the editing period, but that, instead, it could only be completed by the viewer? This is Japanese art. And Slow Cinema.

I believe that the issue many people face with Slow Cinema is that it presents a form of time that seems, at first sight, unnatural to us. The Japanese were already aware of the fact that there were two forms of time. One is cyclical. It’s the time of nature. And then there is the linear time of Man. I think that our perception of time as linear (in the West) comes from our realisation that our life is linear. Since that realisation, we have tried to homogenise everything, just so that it looks and feels linear, like life. It certainly is more assuring. But that’s not quite how nature works and slow films, especially those that do not follow a linear narrative, shock the viewer into the realisation that there is another form of time, a cyclical time that is independent of us and that runs in parallel to us.

Throughout the small and rather short treatise, Delay does a wonderful job in showing the development of the concept of time in Japan with the arrival of Chinese thought and Dutch merchants. Yet even though both have inevitably influenced the local philosophy of time, quite a bit of the traditional concept of time has so far remained. I only need to think of the Emperor, who used to be and, I believe, still is, a true clock in the sense that his appointment and his death bracket an era. This, perhaps, is the best example still existing today of Japanese time being made of instants and intervals, rather than a continuous thread.

Interview with Ludovic Zuili

Last week, I came across French Slow TV. Slow TV as a concept has been a fairly popular phenomenon in Norway. NRK, the national TV station, screens hours on a train, or hours on a boat, or even hours of knitting. Tokyo Reverse (2014) is a French project and is about a man walking through the streets of Tokyo for nine hours (you can find extracts here). It sounds simple, but it isn’t. It is a mind-blowing experience, because the man is walking forward while everything else moves backwards. And this is only the case, because the footage was played in reverse. I’m still in the process of watching it, so a review will be up soon. I had a chance to catch up with the directors of the film, and they gave some interesting insight into the filmmaking process. A big thank you goes to Ludovic Zuili and Simon Bouisson.

1) Tokyo Reverse shows a man walking through Tokyo for nine hours. What has inspired you to make a nine-hour long film?

The idea of making such a long film came from France 4 (French TV channel). For the launch of their new offer, they wanted to start with a Slow TV program, making them the first French channel to experiment Slow TV. The only information we had was the length and the will to add some interactivity in the concept. We came up with the idea of Tokyo Reverse and within 1 month and a half the film was shot, edited, and aired on the 31st of March. It’s very different from any other project we ever did and will probably ever do. It’s very long and yet was made in such a short amount of time.

2) The film is rather hypnotising. The protagonist walks forward, while everyone and everything else is moving backwards. I found it difficult to attune my brain to the movement. It felt as if my brain couldn’t quite decide which movement to follow. Certainly, nine hours screening time is a challenge for most people. Why have you put an additional challenge on top of it?

When we started thinking about a Slow TV program, the first thing that we thought was that we had to try something new. We were sure we wanted to do a “human slow TV” [programme], different from the references we had from Norway. We also knew a 9 hours films is really not something people are going to watch in its entirety but we needed to find an idea that would make them stay, think, that would mesmerize them. After making some test, the “walking backwards” concept became completely obvious.
The challenge of making a 9 hour film in 1 month and a half was crazy but making it with this creative constraint made it way more exciting.

3) The film was shown on French television. For me, Tokyo Reverse would be an ideal project for a gallery. Have you thought about showing the film in a gallery? Why have you chosen TV for this adventure?

Actually TV chose us as we replied to a call for tender and won it. We both think Tokyo Reverse could really be shown in a gallery but we are also proud to be part of a real will from some channel managers to make things change. It’s so different, surprising, exciting as well. The means you can find in TV are not what they used to be but still, there are some budget and we’re really happy if we can keep on creating different TV objects.

4) An interesting fact of the film is your choice of Tokyo. I remember Tsai Ming-liang’s film Walker, which followed a slow-walking monk through the bustling streets of Hong Kong. In a way, Tokyo Reverse is similar. While your protagonist is not exactly walking in slow-motion, it seems as though you try to “slow down” a fast city. What is the reason behind your choice of Tokyo?

What’s the place in the world where it all starts, when it all ends in Paris ? The answer was Japan to us and to the channel as well.
Tokyo was our obvious choice, our first pick, and the channel thought about it as well in the beginning.
At first, there was this idea of making the slow TV program live, filming it live and airing it. It was impossible with the Tokyo Reverse concept though we may want to try it next time !
Yet we tried to respect that first idea in building the film’s chronology respecting the jet lag between France and Japan. At 22:30 in Paris, the sun starts rising in Tokyo and that’s what happened during the airing.
Then there’s the people of course, Tokyo is such a big city, with so many aesthetic, colorful, crowded places that makes the reverse idea even more hypnotic.

5) Can you tell me a little bit more about the actual shooting of the film? I imagine it must have been difficult for the crew, and especially for the protagonist who walks backwards through a busy city.

The crew was composed of Simon filming, Ludovic walking, Nicolas, the Tokyo AD who chose the perfect places to shoot and Hadrien (mister H) [who was] part of the production team that worked on the logistic etc. We also had an actor a day that walked with us and interacted with me at some point. Simon was using a Movi, a new easier steady cam, that is very heavy so it was quite a tough physical shooting for him. I had an earpiece so I could hear everything that Simon told me and he gave me the directions.

Shooting in Tokyo was both pleasant and hard. Pleasant because Japanese people are so polite and humble we never had any problems while filming. Nobody came to us to ask us to stop or anything like that. Then it was very tough, the first hour of the film, when we shot in Shibuya was crazy. So many people, so many directions as well as the noise of the city that made communication between us very hard. But still, it’s one of the best moments of the film. We had to go through this to make it better.

Walking backwards was really hard in the first shooting sessions but became quite natural in the end. The trust I have in Simon made it way easier. Walking 30 minutes backward is I think harder in a psychological way than a physical way. We shot about 5 sessions of 30 minutes every day and the last one hurt our whole bodies a lot but still, we were so excited by the project we could have done more if it was needed !

6) What was the reaction of the French audience after the first broadcast?

We were really interested in how the interactivity would work. In Tokyo Reverse, the character is sharing his thoughts, photos, videos, via the social networks. During the airing all the posts he made came up live on the @reverse account. We knew Tokyo Reverse had the potential of being big on the internet during the airing but we never thought it would be that big. We became a trending topic during the night and what surprises us more besides the quantity of tweets or retweets was how kindly the film was received. We got so many nice words, shares, retweets during the night.
In general, Tokyo Reverse was really well received during and after the broadcast.

7) Do you think Slow TV will be the future of television?

Honestly we don’t know. Slow TV is something that makes TV different, that makes people think, watching TV a way they’re not used to, Slow TV makes difference possible and real. With Simon, we believe it could be the beginning for us and for television of an exploration for new concepts, another way of thinking how TV could be made and we’re looking forward new experiences. The length of the film is one of the keys but we’d also be thrilled in making a crazy 3 minute video (for instance another project we made : https://vimeo.com/44607388 & https://vimeo.com/78580380)

Day 18 – Inori (Gonzales-Rubio)

If my memory doesn’t trick me, then this is a premier for me: a slow film set in Japan. Not really made by a Japanese filmmaker, but this matters little. I was, in fact, surprised when I read that Gonzales-Rubio, whose film Alamar I reviewed earlier this month, contributed to the NARAtive Film Festival Project, which Naomi Kawase initiated.

Rubio’s documentary Inori (2012) is set in the surroundings of Nara, east of Osaka. It is one of those cinematic works that brings everything that makes a slow film a slow film together. The documentary follows the lives of a few remaining inhabitants of the area. Elderly people who are dwelling on their memories of the past.

Inori (2012), Pedro Gonzales-Rubio

Inori is set in a  striking environment. It’s one of those landscapes that by definition evoke slowness. You don’t have to do much as a filmmaker anymore. You only need to set up the camera, let it run, and let the viewer dive into a different world.

I found it striking to hear how the area used to look like, and how the people react to the transformation. It is perhaps the complete opposite of the viewer’s perception. Most definitely, it is in stark contrast to my own perception. The area used to be lively, full of children and young people. But the economy crumbled. The younger generation moved away to big cities where they could find work. Today, the area is empty and quite literally slow. I didn’t get the feeling that people liked it. And this is where the urban spectator comes in. Or rather, the fed-up urban spectator. Fed up of speed, of abundance, wishing to have a slightly calmer life. I would die for a quite surrounding like this!

But I’m only the spectator, and not the inhabitant whose surroundings have entirely changed their faces. It’s like watching a village die. In general, death has a certain omnipresence in the documentary. The change of the village itself, the emptiness of it, tells one of the many stories of death in Inori. However, there is also the presence of graves. There is this wonderfully metaphorical shot. The camera is tilted right to the top of trees, then slowly tilts down to reveal a grave; Heaven and Earth, connected via a simple but effective camera movement.

Inori (2012), Pedro Gonzales-Rubio

There is talk about paradise and different worlds. I’m aware that people speak of these things in connection to the afterlife. But if you hear them talking, it almost seems as if they also talk about Nara before it became a near-dead area. There is this recurring sense of ambiguity in Inori. And yet, if I wasn’t writing a blog post on it, I wouldn’t pose any questions. It is a film you can simply follow and go where it might take you. It reminds me of floating on water, floating with the current. No effort at all, just let your mind be taken to a wonderful Japanese area, and be introduced to some interesting people, who all share their stories with us.

Literally Distant

Sometimes you only have to be patient. Patience is a virtue, and without patience you can’t endure a slow film. Or waiting for a slow film, for that matter. I was therefore chuffed when I got the chance to see Zhengfan Yang’s Distant a lot sooner than I had expected.

The film consists of 13 takes, spread over 88 minutes. It consist of 13 different scenes in 13 different settings. In a way, I find, they tell 13 different (small) stories, but they are stories that are nevertheless somehow connected. You can feel it, though you cannot be entirely sure because you cannot see everything.

Distant, Zhengfan Yang

Distant takes the characteristics of Slow Cinema very literal and makes them explicit, but actually so explicit that I only realised how all the features came together at the end of the film. A clever tactic, and an entirely new challenge for me as a viewer. I’m very used to see the same characteristics over and over again. It’s lovely to see something in a different context.

Anyway, the title of the film is key to the entire film, and builds up on what I mentioned previously: the absence of intimacy between film and viewer, between character and viewer, and also between the director and the characters.

In some ways, Distant can be frustrating to watch if you are a viewer who wants to see everything. All scenes are shot in extreme long shots. The surroundings (of man) are more prominent, i.e. take a greater part of the frame, than the actual characters. Whether we are at a beach, where we can see a man playing with his dog, or whether we are at a bus station, where people wait for the next bus – we have no access to them.

The little gestures they make have to be guessed if one really wants to know what they’re up to. Facial expressions are even less visible than in other slow films I know (the complete opposite to Tsai Ming-liang’s Visage). The film teaches you to give up on the usual longing for seeing everything, more so than other slow films. The surroundings, and therefore the relationship between the characters and their habitat, are the feature to look out for and to study in more detail. In classical (narrative) cinema, films are human-centred. Distant is a great example that Slow Cinema, while following human subjects, moves beyond this, and puts human subjects into their social, political, and geographical context – literally. It puts into perspective that humans shape their surroundings, and vice versa. Especially the latter plays an important role in Slow Cinema.

Distant, Zhengfan Yang

Distant has an additional layer to all this. It is not only about the viewer and the director being distant from the characters, achieved by long shots. The characters are also distant to one another, which again, symbolises what I have established earlier: loneliness amongst characters is one of the many key features of Slow Cinema, and Yang’s film makes it very explicit.

All characters are alone. They do not seem to be with anybody. In one scene, there is a newly-wed couple, but the bride seems to be unhappy. She walks into nothingness, then she returns, walks closer to the camera. She then drops her flowers onto the ground, and walks off towards the horizon. She distances herself from the guests, from the photographer, and most importantly, from her husband, who all continue to celebrate.

An old man (who strongly reminded me of Tsai Ming-liang’s Walker in some ways, especially when he began to walk in a subway tunnel, whose framing brings Tsai’s compositions to mind) collapses on the pavement. No one helps him. People walk past. Cars drive past. There is no sign of compassion, or a willingness to help. As with all other characters, he is on his own. And he possibly dies on his own.

What I couldn’t quite make out was the reason for using predominantly male characters. This reminded me somewhat of Japan, where women and men grow apart from each other more and more. Loneliness seems to prevail over intimacy. I know that Japan isn’t China, but I couldn’t help the association. There’s too much loneliness in the world! (Perhaps SC is an advocate for turning this around…or maybe I’m wrong, and read too much into it, which is the more obvious possibility.)